NHK decided to work with Google to widen the dissemination of its own data to a wider audience, said Reiko Saisho, a spokeswoman for the broadcaster. "We believe it is of benefit to people searching for missing persons to have they information on various media, and we believe Google, which has huge servers, is a suitable partner."
The alliance meant the Person Finder address was regularly scrolled across the top of NHK's main domestic TV channel -- the single most trusted source of news during the disaster, according to a poll.
Within a few days, Google was also getting data from the National Police Agency and Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Then followed data from Fukushima prefectural government and the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
"It gradually became the de facto place," said Kawai.
A unique addition came with the acceptance of photographs of lists of missing people or survivors that were posted at evacuation centers. Google staff would enter names from the photos by hand. The project eventually grew to around 10,000 pictures and Google expanded the effort to get assistance from volunteers.
Google's success points to its growing strength in Japan. The company has never dominated the Japanese Internet market like it does in so many other countries -- that position is held by Yahoo Japan -- but Google has consistently plugged, established a large engineering and localization base here, and has been steadily winning friends and converts.
Last year it signed a major deal with Yahoo Japan to provide search results for use on the company's portal. The deal annoyed Microsoft, which signed a similar deal for its Bing service to be used with Yahoo in the U.S. and many other countries, but it was approved by Japan's antitrust regulator.
Google said the launch and success of Person Finder was independent of its commercial operations here.
"That hasn't been our focus," said Chen. "Our engineers started working within a few minutes of the earthquake hitting, and the focus has been on how to make relevant information accessible to the people who need it."
Kawai says his experience has left him with new admiration for his employer and the power of technology.
'It's an honor, as a company, that we can do something for people who are in dire need of information," he said. "We cannot really save direct lives, but we can fill the area of people looking for information."
"If it were not for technology and the Internet, I can't imagine [what I would have done]," he said.